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ARE YOU HERE

January 4, 2015

Film + EntertainmentReview | by James Joseph


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After having formally expressed his storytelling prowess whilst writing for the latter seasons of HBO’s masterful series The Sopranos (1999 – 2007), Matthew Weiner finally saw his long-gestating pilot script for what would go on to be the first episode of Mad Men (2007 – 2015) being put into production, a move that would herald this new ‘Golden Age of Television’ and put cable channel AMC on the quality TV map.

A television show about the tumultuous, precedent-shifting decade of the sixties in America and how it sculpts the ongoing existential crisis of haunted protagonist Don Draper, Weiner’s seven-season magnum opus is – and continues to be – one of the finest series of American television ever produced, a sublime mixture of era-specific cultural scrutiny and an examination of the ramifications of inevitable change.

Combining painstaking period details with a slowly rewarding narrative progression, Mad Men is widely renowned for a high level of astute and engaging characterisation that leaves comparative shows wanting. It also casts a large shadow over Weiner’s feature filmmaking debut, Are You Here (2014), whose unexciting title is analogous of the irony of Weiner’s directorial sleepwalking.

Playing perhaps the least believable on-screen weatherman in cinema history, Owen Wilson stars as Steve Dallas, an unabashed philanderer who enjoys nothing more than the no-strings-attached frivolity that comes with being a single man. Sharing in Steve’s clear, marijuana-infused arrested development is Ben (Zach Galifianakis), a bearded anti-establishment hippy who spends his days living as far removed from modern society as possible.

When Ben learns that his wealthy estranged father has recently passed away, the pair returns to Ben’s childhood home to bid him farewell and aid his formidable sister Terry (a miscast Amy Poehler) in the dissemination of the family estate. However, after learning that he has inherited his father’s fortune, Ben finds himself at odds with Terry’s allegations that he is mentally unfit to wield such wealth, all the while battling it out with Steve for the affections of his father’s 25-year-old widow, Angela (Laura Ramsey).

Peppered with oddly simplistic, unfunny and lumpen dialogue – a far cry from Weiner’s usually nuanced and astute work on Mad MenAre You Here is a painfully misfiring comedy that fails to successfully fuse together its offbeat sense of humour with the more dramatic elements of its story. Despite thriving on the slow-burning thematic parameters and payoffs he deploys in the 13-episode chunks of a televisual season, Weiner here appears out of his depth in his attempts at cramming in as much male angst as possible into the film’s padded out 114-minute runtime.

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The casting of Wilson as the outwardly unlikable womaniser Steve is slightly at odds with the actor’s decades-long determination to sculpt a career as an on-screen everyman, however much his beach bum looks chime in with the character’s penchant for narcotics. Equally put to bafflingly incorrect use is Poehler who, despite consciously playing against type as an uptight married woman struggling to juggle bereavement with sharp gluttony, is quickly – sloppily – set aside once the peculiar love triangle engulfs the third act. The best performance comes from Galifianakis, who lends gravitas to a simplistically written role that heavily relies on the actor’s tried and tested wacky shtick.

For an artist who exudes a sophisticated cinematic appreciation and understanding elsewhere, a piece of work suffused with so much sloppiness and misplaced pseudointellectual psychobabble sticks out like an incredibly sore thumb. Similar to his mentor David Chase, who also waded into the realms of cinema post-Sopranos with the ill-fated Not Fade Away (2012), which was met with a shrug and a limited release strategy (it’s still yet to turn up in the UK), Weiner’s first film is a bold attempt at launching a post-television career that, despite its promise, already seems in jeopardy.

Are You Here is available on VOD, digital download and in selected cinemas.

Edward Frost